, August 25, 2009 (ENS) – The common herbicide atrazine, known to impact wildlife reproductive health, has contaminated watersheds and drinking water throughout much of the United States, finds a new report released Monday by the Natural Resources Defense Council that raises concern about the chemical's effects on human reproduction.
The environmental nonprofit organization alleges that the U.S. EPA is ignoring its own data showing broad contamination of U.S. waters by atrazine, a known endocrine disruptor that affects human and animal hormones.
"The extent of contamination we found in the data was breathtaking and alarming," said Andrew Wetzler, director of NRDC's Wildlife Conservation Program and deputy director of NRDC's Midwest Program, as well as one of the report's authors. "The EPA found atrazine almost everywhere they looked."
The contamination data in the report was obtained as the result of a legal settlement and Freedom of Information Act requests, the NRDC said.
"I think that the public will find this hard to swallow and I hope it will help force the EPA to address the situation more aggressively," said Wetzler.
The report finds that all of the watersheds monitored by EPA and 90 percent of the drinking water sampled tested positive for atrazine, which is sold under dozens of brand names. It is now found in more than 45 pre-mixes in the U.S. and is the active ingredient most frequently used by manufacturers in combination herbicide products.
The water supply to this cistern was contaminated by atrazine from a neighbor's corn and hay field. (Photo by Joseph Zarr)
Contamination was most severe in Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, and Nebraska.
"Evidence shows atrazine contamination to be a widespread and dangerous problem that has not been communicated to the people most at risk," said Jennifer Sass, PhD, NRDC senior scientist and an author of the report.
"U.S. EPA is ignoring some very high concentrations of this pesticide in water that people are drinking and using every day," said Sass. "This exposure could have a considerable impact on reproductive health. Scientific research has tied this chemical to some ghastly impacts on wildlife and raises red flags for possible human impacts."
Banned by the European Union, atrazine is regulated in the United States by the U.S. EPA. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA has determined that an annual average of no more than three parts per billion (ppb) of atrazine may be present in drinking water.
One of the chief findings of the NRDC report is that this reliance on a "running annual average" allows levels of atrazine in drinking water to peak at extremely high concentrations.
The agrochemical herbicide Atrazine (Photo credit unknown)
The effects associated with atrazine, even at low levels of exposure, are well documented. Concentrations as low as 0.1 ppb have been shown to alter the development of sex characteristics in male frogs, resulting in male frogs with female sex characteristics and the presence of eggs in male frog testes.
Some scientists are concerned about exposure for children and pregnant women, as small doses could impact development of the brain and reproductive organs. Atrazine also acts as a multiplier to increase the toxic effects of other chemicals in the environment.
The federal Agency for Toxic Substances warns that, "Atrazine may affect pregnant women by causing their babies to grow more slowly than normal. Birth defects and liver, kidney, and heart damage has been seen in animals exposed to high levels of atrazine."
Atrazine has its defenders. Jere White, executive director of the Kansas Corn Growers Association and Kansas Grain Sorghum Producers Association says, "Atrazine is a safe, effective and affordable herbicide that helps our growers control weeds in their crops. What's more, our growers are using practices that are keeping the levels of atrazine well below EPA's drinking water standard. That means even according to EPA's extremely strict standards, atrazine at these levels presents no threat to drinking water."
The NRDC says the herbicide has "limited economic value" and "safer agricultural methods can be substituted to achieve similar results."
The environmental group would like to see atrazine phased out, more effective atrazine monitoring, and the adoption of farming techniques that can help minimize the use of atrazine to keep it from running into waterways.
NRDC recommends that consumers concerned about atrazine contamination in their drinking water use a simple and economical household water filter, such as one that fits on the tap.
Consumers should make sure that the filter they choose is certified by NSF International to meet American National Standards Institute Standard 53 for the reduction of volatile organic compounds and therefore capable of reducing many contaminants, including atrazine and other herbicides and pesticides.
NRDC's SimpleSteps website includes an online form to allow people to take on a watchdog role by collecting information on how their public water systems are treating these issues. Visit www.simplesteps.org/atrazine for more information.
Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.
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